At the foundation of Arizona’s $25-million-a-year basketball operation is a four-game series against Duke, 1987-1991. Those four games put the Wildcats on the map more than anything else.
The opportunity to play the Blue Devils is almost as important as beating them.
In the quarter-century since that first game, won 91-85 by Arizona at McKale Center, the Wildcats and Duke have played eight times. Incredibly, Arizona is 5-3.
Only UCLA, which has played the Blue Devils nine times in the same stretch, going 2-7, plays on the same stage. Duke has played true road games at McKale and at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion and at no other Pac-12 venue.
Against the rest of the Pac-12, Duke has played 10 games in that 25-year stretch. It is 9-1, losing only to No. 1 Stanford in 2001.
The trick is to get to play Duke. It has more cachet than playing Notre Dame in football, because the Fighting Irish are no longer consistently powerful, and they are not coached by a legend like Mike Krzyzewski.
Beating the Blue Devils hasn’t ensured immediate future success at Arizona. Three days after that maiden victory in 1987, unbeaten and ranked No. 1, Arizona lost at New Mexico.
Six days after beating Duke in a wild double-overtime game in 1991, Arizona lost at Mac Court to a 12-13 Oregon team.
But that’s not the point. Getting on the radar is what matters.
Lute Olson’s and now Sean Miller’s willingness to take on all comers isn’t a widely shared concept in the Pac-12. The December list of nonconference games in the league is head-shakingly weak.
Arizona State, which hopes to showcase potential All-America guard Jahii Carson now goes into an off-the-grid slumber against Grambling, Miami, Texas Tech and UC-Irvine. The best No. 14 Oregon can do is play BYU.
Only UCLA, which plays Duke in Madison Square Garden on Dec. 19, and Colorado, which appears to be fearless, arranging games against Kansas and Oklahoma State this month, are willing to punch it out with the big boys.